As happens in the collaborative world of dance pop, Toronto singer/songwriter Kai hasn’t actually released an album of her own yet—but is already a veritable sensation.
Indeed, she quickly established herself as a highly in-demand session singer, with projects like her Grammy nominated collab with Flume, “Never Be Like You”; EDM legend Diplo’s “Revolution”; and “Crawl” by Childish Gambino. At twenty, she struck a development deal with Warner Music Canada, and began taking trips down to LA for songwriting sessions. These brief residencies allowed her to carve out a unique niche.
But now she’s taking her talents solo, with her lush, sultry debut single “in the now,” which she describes as an emotional portrayal of “self-sabotage and the fear of intimacy.” Not an unfamiliar theme, for many, surely.
While the buzz was starting to kick in, Kai took the time to chat with BlackBook about her swift rise, and how the spirituality in her music helps keep her grounded.
Have you been making music all your life?
I have, yeah. I wrote my first song at nine years old on the beach in Italy, and I was so proud of myself! I still remember the song to this day. Melodies are still kinda tight, haha.
You have an impressive roster of EDM collaborations to your name. How did you get connected with the likes of Diplo, Skrillex and Flume?
Diplo came into my life through a mutual producer friend, Imanos, who had been working with him at the time. I had written this ballad called “Revolution” for someone who was very special to me, who was going through a really dark time. I sent the idea to Imanos, and I remember Diplo tweeted at me saying, “send the a cappella” haha, and in a flash it was out in the world. He works fast like that. Then I had written and produced this demo idea called “Mind.” I sent it to him to see if he was into it, and within a week, he sent me a version back with Skrillex on the hook and it was a wrap. Flume was through my publisher at the time. I was a fan of his, and when he asked me if I was interested in working with him it was a no brainer.
I read that you first started releasing music in 2012 with the Montreal dubstep group Adventure Club—what were those beginning years like?
Those years were me writing and working with as many people as possible. I was learning the craft of song and trying on different hats creatively. I was still a baby. I hadn’t experienced much yet. It was a period of discovery on every level and saying yes to as many opportunities as possible.
So “Kai” in Japanese means “change.” Why did you choose that name?
The name really just came to me. I had heard it in a conversation with my sister, and I had a really odd, visceral reaction to it. I thought it was the most beautiful name I had ever heard, and its meanings in different languages like water, fire, change, warrior all resonated with my being so strongly.
What “change” are you hoping to embody?
I have always been a seeker so I am constantly evolving. I’ve gone through so many metaphorical deaths and rebirths over the years. Working to deprogram so many societal and familial limiting beliefs and illusions that are fed to all of us. I believe that is why we are all here, to remember who we truly are, our divine essence.
How does spirituality find its way into your music?
Music is an extension of my spiritual practice. Whenever I sit down to write a song I always ask how I can be of service. What lesson have I learned recently that could help someone? That is always my intention. That is what drives me to make music.
Apart from your own work, you’ve also written for other prominent artists. Is there a difference in your songwriting process when you write for someone else opposed to your own work?
My songwriting process is the most personal thing to me in the world, so I don’t ever go into writing a song thinking it’s for someone else, because I can’t. I only write from my own personal experience. My music is my shadow work, it is where I heal and learn to accept and honor those parts of myself that are challenging to face. The only time where I wrote with another artist in mind was “Sweet Talker” for Jessie J. I had been in a creative lull and I tried writing a song for Rihanna for fun, to see if I could push myself outside of my comfort zone; and it ended up being cut by Jessie J, which was super incredible. She’s amazing.
Who has been your favorite person to collaborate with?
Isaac Valens. He is my musical soulmate and best friend. I also love collaborating with D Mile, he’s an absolute legend. It’s like they can read my mind and know exactly what I like and want. That chemistry hasn’t always been easy to come by for me, it’s part of what has taken me a long time to get to this moment.
On your Instagram I saw that you were in the studio with Pharrell. How was that? I’ve heard he’s an absolute wizard.
It was something that I have been trying to manifest for many years, haha. He is one of my biggest inspirations and it was the most surreal experience to date honestly. He had heard some of my music and wanted to make something with me. It all feels like a dream now, but I got to sit beside him and watch him make a beat from scratch. Like, what is life?!
Can you tell us a a bit about the new single “in the now”?
It’s about this deep desire I have for presence in my life. It’s such a simple concept in theory, but in reality, it sometimes feels impossible. We live so much in our minds, whether it’s in the past or the future or being bombarded by constant external stimulation, but the present moment is where all the goodness lives. It also has to do with my fear of intimacy. I will either get super nostalgic about a past relationship, or fear the ending of one, and so I then give it a deadline in my head. It’s my mind’s way of protecting me because intimacy scares me—but it robs me of truly experiencing people while they are here. It’s literally a daily practice for me.
Considering we’re still kind of under quarantine, what are you doing to celebrate its release?
I struggle with celebrating myself. It’s actually something that I have really been working on, because it is so important to celebrate yourself and the milestones and wins in your life, no matter how small. I will probably eat a delicious meal and have a little dance party. Those are my celebration favorites!